Much has been written regarding "The Golden Compass" and the author, Phillip Pullman, with his apparent master plan of converting the world's children into atheists, if some are to be believed. Yet, while this may be an issue within the books themselves, none of that controversy is apparent in the finished film. And maybe by using those controversial elements, the movie would have been much better off.
As it stands, "The Golden Compass" is little more than a cheap imitator of fantasy films that have come before it, such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. The movie itself is a textbook situation of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.
To sum it up, Lord Asreal (Daniel Craig) has discovered "Dust", a mystical energy force that apparently allows people to travel between universes. The concept of Dust goes against the teachings of the Magesterium, so this organization, which controls the vast majority of the world it would seem, wants to stop Asreal from making the existence of other worlds known to the public as this would undermine everything they teach.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is taken into the care of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) where Coulter attempts to subdue Lyra, as Lyra is the child stated in the witches prophecy to be the one who decides the coming war. Lyra is also in possession of an alethiometer, or Golden Compass, which is an object that is capable of seeing the truth within any situation. Lyra escapes, and ends up on a whirlwind adventure that includes polar bears, sky cowboys, and witches.
There are so many issues with this movie it is difficult to find a place to begin. First and foremost, the movie is just too short. Clocking in at just under two hours, absolutely nothing is given any time to develop. Moments pass from one scene to the next with no real connection to any of the characters. In one example, Lyra uses her golden compass to ascertain the location of the great Polar Bear Iorek's (voiced by Ian McKellen) armor. She then tells him, he listens with no question of her motives or how she got this knowledge, picks up the armor and immediately becomes best friends with the child. Shortly after, a situation arises where Iorek's life is put into jeopardy and Lyra shows a connection with him that just does not make any sense whatsoever. No evidence was given in this movie to justify her reaction to the situation.
It is completely obvious that much was cut from the book in an attempt to fit into a sub-2 hour run time and ends up reading more like a cliff's notes on the novel instead of an adaptation. Other characters come and go with seemingly no compelling reason as to why they are there. Unfortunately, this means that it becomes impossible to connect with any of the characters on any more than a superficial level, making the movie less of a coherent whole and more of a mish-mash of situations.
The plot is also a difficult issue to grasp with as there does not seem to be any real goals until the movie is literally over. The characters stumble across things that lead them from one place to the next and very rarely do they ever take matters into their own hands. Every new character seems to lay out some clunky new exposition that attempts to fill the audience in on what has happened or is going to happen instead of just showing us. The movie then therefore follows into a large portion of summaries about the world instead of immersing the audience within the world.
Yet, not is all bad about the movie. There are individual moments of fun that are scattered throughout. The entire sequence with the Ice Bear army were probably the most engaging moments in the entire film, as they not only showed Lyra's true cunning and intelligence, but was also a showcase for an intense battle where the movie truly earns its PG-13 rating in a shocking conclusion.
Nicole Kidman's Mrs. Coulter is also an incredibly effective villain because she is just obviously off her rocker. Her desperate attempts to maintain self control are undermined by moments of pure insanity where it is clear that not much is right with this woman, and Kidman plays it wonderfully. Unfortunately, her time in the movie is very short and she is given very little to do when she is there. I certainly would have enjoyed to delve deeper into her story to understand her more, even though there was an unoriginal twist thrown into her character near the end. Yet, because there was such little explanation, it could turn into something much deeper in future films if they are made. Craig was also charismatic as Lord Asreal, but unfortunately he is in the movie for what seems to be all of 10 minutes.
Dakota Blue Richards delivers an excellent performance as Lyra, but again, her character suffers from the same problems as all the others, being a lack of development and a paint-by-numbers plot.
Ultimately, I found myself wanting to forget about this portion of the saga and more interested in what is to come. And hopefully, if they do make those other installments, they will learn to cut only what is necessary and focus on the characters much more. There have been worse ways to spend two hours, but I can think of so many better ways to spend them as well.